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A Sure Thing
Almost from the beginning of our marriage Ted and I had talked about someday owning a bed and breakfast. Meanwhile, we lived in a two-bedroom trailer on my parent's dairy farm. The dairy barely supported one family, let alone two. Realizing after about three years that milking cows twice a day wasn't going to pay the bills, we submitted a bid to operate a county horse park in return for free lodging within the park.
We had already launched a "horse business" from the dairy farm consisting of one old pony that we schlepped around to birthday parties and fairs, giving rides for fifty dollars an hour. This was the same pony my father bought me at age seven when he decided he needed help rounding up the heifers from the back field. He led the pony up to the house, called me out, picked me up, and put me on the pony bareback. He opened the gate and, slapping the pony on the rump, ordered me to go round up the heifers. This was how I learned to ride.
Lady was her name. The feisty, four-year-old chestnut-and-white pinto turned out to be a gem. I spent many a childhood hour on her, galloping around bareback and shoeless (me, not her), going for day-long adventures through the woods and fields along with my best friend, Mary, and her pony, Kiss & Tell.
Lady was a spitfire with a heart of gold. A friend from middle school once brought her little sister over to the farm and asked if she could ride Lady. The girl was stick thin, a blue bandanna partially covering her near-bald head.
"She has a brain tumor," my friend whispered.
The girl, who looked like she might blow away if the wind picked up a little, gazed at me solemnly.
"Oh, I don't know if that's a good idea," I said. Lady could hardly stand still long enough for me to mount her, and she loved to take off at a gallop just for fun. But with those eyes on me I couldn't resist. I fetched the mounting block and held fast to Lady's bridle while my friend helped her sister onto Lady's bare back.
"Hold her tight," I said nervously.
I needn't have worried. My spirited pony somehow knew she carried precious cargo. For the first time in her life, she stood perfectly still as the girl settled onto her back and then tiptoed around the paddock as if on eggshells.
By the time Lady reached retirement age she had settled down considerably and was put to good use as our pony ride mount. Adding to our equestrian enterprises, Ted and I purchased a battered but potentially stylish horse-drawn carriage. We packed it off to an Amish village in nearby Intercourse, Pennsylvania, for restoration. The Amish also supplied us with a Standardbred horse named Whippoorwill. We were told he could "really put in the miles." We began offering our carriage service for weddings, transporting the bride and groom from church to reception.
Armed with this extensive knowledge of all things equine and a twenty-seven — page proposal hammered out in a week, we won the bid to run a sixty-horse county equestrian park in northern Delaware, fifteen miles from the home dairy farm.
We moved our paltry possessions from the trailer on the farm to our new home, a small two-bedroom house attached to the horse stable at the county park. This had been the former caretaker's house on what was once a DuPont estate. One kitchen window overlooked a stall. A door upstairs opened directly into a hayloft, inviting a constant stream of jokes about Ted and I having a "roll in the hay." The house was obviously not suitable for a B&B, and the county administration would not have allowed it anyway. Our dream would have to be put on hold.
For the next thirteen years.
One weekend, about seven years into our tenure at the county park, a couple of our boarders asked if I could transport their horses to a show in Cecil County, Maryland. The name of the stable was Fairwinds. The show happened to fall on a rare Saturday when I had some spare time, so I agreed.
Arriving at Fairwinds, I strolled around the farm property, checking out the two barns — one was a thirty-by-one-hundred foot cinder block structure with eighteen stalls, the other an old bank barn, formerly used for milking cows (I could tell by the adjacent milkhouse) with nine stalls. The farm's breathtaking setting included a one-acre pond, four fenced-in pastures, and a Victorian-style house. The one-hundred-by-two-hundred foot outdoor riding ring was filling with riders about to begin the first class of the day. I sidled up to one of our boarders watching along the rail.
"I'm going to have a place like this someday," I said with conviction.
Fast forward six years: A new county administration came in and unceremoniously kicked us out, thinking they could make a profit running the park with unionized county employees. (They were wrong, but that's another story.) Given six months to find a new home/business/farm for ourselves and our two sons, Nick, aged nine, and Zach, thirteen, we began searching.
Ted, determined to stay in Delaware, discovered several properties downstate. Enthusiastic at first, we set out to inspect them. A few were so ugly I refused to get out of the car. One sported land so low that we never made it up the flooded farm lane; beneath the puddles were potholes that threatened to swallow our jaunty little yellow Rambler.
We were getting nowhere, and the fights we were having about each new prospect were taking a toll on us. I decided to save the marriage by taking a day off from farm hunting (and from Ted) to attend my favorite auction in nearby Pennsylvania.
That's when fate stepped in.
Hill's Auction is legendary for its estate sales and I am a frequent customer. That Saturday in June I happened to be standing near a wagon piled high with a portion of someone's lifelong possessions, wondering absentmindedly why we gather so much "stuff" only to have it parceled out at the end of life to the highest bidder. Watching the auctioneer extol the virtues of some precious piece of junk, I overheard someone talking about a farm for sale.
"Yeah, it was auctioned on the courthouse steps but nobody bid on it, so the bank has it," he said. I crept closer, all ears. "Pretty nice place, too," he continued. "Shame."
The man walked away. I followed like a puppy chasing a new toy.
"Excuse me," I said, touching him on the arm. "I couldn't help but overhear you talking about the farm for sale. Do you know if it has a name?"
"Does," he said, scratching his head. "I believe it was ..."
I held my breath.
"I believe it was Fairwinds."
Fairwinds. I remembered it well.CHAPTER 2
My glee at discovering the availability of the Fairwinds property was tempered by the reality of convincing Ted that it was everything we ever wanted. The prospect was complicated by the cruel fact that the house, which had looked so charming on the outside, was a disaster on the inside. My favorite line from The Lion King is when Timon looks out over the parched, cracked, devastated savannah and declares, "Talk about yer fixer-uppa!" Peering through the filthy windows at the cracked, water damaged, grimy interior of the Fairwinds house, I could relate.
I transported my horse Painted Warrior out to the property several times so I could examine the fifty-two acres surrounding the house on horseback. The lay of the land was just as I remembered it from the horse show — partially wooded, with four beautiful fenced pastures, an outdoor riding ring, an acre pond, a bank barn built into the side of a hill, and another cinder block barn with eighteen stalls. Plus a feature I knew Ted would love — a three-bay equipment shed attached to an enclosed machine shop.
I took it upon myself to explore without the benefit of a real estate agent, so I'm pretty sure my "visits" would likely be considered trespassing. But I never encountered another soul on the property. There seemed to be no interest in it other than my own.
I say "I" rather than "we" because I couldn't persuade Ted to accompany me on any of my jaunts. His first and most ridiculous objection concerned the location of the farm: Maryland.
"I want to stay in Delaware," he declared.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because why?" I persisted, sounding like a third grader.
"Because ... because ... I'm a Delawarean!"
Realizing how lame this sounded, he argued the advantages of lower property taxes, no sales tax, and the close proximity of family members. I countered with the benefits of the rural landscape, the superior schools, and the close proximity of five rivers.
Ah, the rivers! I had him there. He dearly loved boating and fishing. The head of the Chesapeake Bay was within seven miles of Fairwinds. Bingo!
It wasn't as if we were moving far from Delaware, after all. The state line was a mere fifteen miles away. Our new home would be just twenty-two miles from his parents and twenty from my mother, who after my father's death had moved into a house in suburban Wilmington. Ted didn't have much of an argument, and he knew it. Still he persisted in searching the real estate ads in our native state. Meanwhile, I was exploring the property at Fairwinds, biding my time.
The day finally came when Ted agreed to "take a look" at the place. Driving out to the property, I was a nervous wreck. Once there, we strolled around (he had flatly refused to ride a horse), he stone-faced, me humming distractedly. I was careful to avoid the house, hoping to impress him first with the obvious assets of the land. My first ray of hope came when he peered into the equipment shed with attached machine shop and silently nodded.
The inevitable was imminent. As we approached the house I held my breath. "Now, just know that the house needs some work," I mumbled, which was the understatement of the year. I led Ted to the window of the "dining room," which I knew from prior exploration was the least dismaying of the downstairs rooms, its major flaw being the ragged hole in the ceiling extending down part of one wall. Cupping his hands around his face, Ted leaned in, his nose touching the glass. There he remained for a good three minutes while I bit each of my fingernails to the quick. Finally he stepped back and sighed.
"It's got good molding," he said.
That was it. The place was ours.CHAPTER 3
Laying the Foundation
Looking back, I think the idea of a bed and breakfast began brewing in my psyche at an early age. On the dairy farm, a steady stream of hired hands made extra mouths to feed at the breakfast table. My mother fixed eggs in every form along with sausage and bacon brought in from the smokehouse. And then there was scrapple, a regional delicacy consisting of everything boiled from a pig's head (along with the tail and other unmentionables) mixed with mysterious spices.
Every Sunday, the aroma of hotcakes and sausage wafted up the stairs into my bedroom, tempting me from sleep. Hotcakes, I loved. Ham and eggs, not so much. Mom discovered my distaste for this dish one morning while cleaning out the trash can in the bathroom near the kitchen. To her surprise, she found a quagmire of congealed eggs and sausage, grease turned white, in the bottom of the can. Covering the mess cleverly with Kleenex had not done the job my five-year-old brain expected. My butt received a gentle whack with the yardstick (my mother's favorite form of corporal punishment.) But my point was made; I was never served that particular concoction again.
The idea that, especially for farmers, breakfast is the most important meal of the day was thus ingrained in me. My father got up at five each morning, pulled on his striped overalls, and trudged to the barn to milk thirty-six Holsteins (and two or three Jerseys thrown in to increase butterfat). After milking the cows and feeding a variety of other farm animals, he returned at eight, expecting a hot and fulfilling meal to last him until noon. Anywhere from one to three hired hands (depending on the time of year) joined him. My two older brothers would be off at school by this time, leaving me sitting with the help, listening wide-eyed to the day's plans laid out by my father.
When I reached the right age, which by farm standards was about seven, I would meet him at the huge white barn that stood across the pasture field from our brick house. The trip by pickup truck was about one-eighth of a mile. Daddy would drive up the road adjacent to the pasture while Pooch, our shepherd-mix mutt, galloped beside, biting at the hubcaps all the way. It was once estimated that Pooch had been run over at least thirteen times, some of them by tractor, but he never seemed to die from it.
I preferred the adventure of walking to the barn through the pasture field, inspecting each cow plop along the way. Some old and dried (perfect for flinging like Frisbees) and others fresh, green and still steaming. I enjoyed being the center of the cows' attention long enough for them to lift their heads from grazing to gaze nonchalantly at me while licking the inside of their nostrils with long pink tongues.
Nearing the barn, I stopped at the cement-topped well from which we derived our drinking water. A crack in the round cement cover left just enough room for me to peer with one eye into the black depths below. It was fairly common for a cow to raise its tail over the well, guaranteeing a stream of contaminants seeping through the crack and into the water. The sanitary aspects of this system would be widely condemned today, but it is to this leakage (and years of drinking raw milk) that I attribute my strong constitution. I have never had a cavity or a broken bone, rarely have I been sick, and just the other day I used my thumbnail to turn a screw. Kids these days don't have the advantage of a wide variety of bacteria entering their systems to which their bodies must build up resistance. This deficiency makes them susceptible to all sorts of allergies and illnesses.
But I digress.
Leaving the well, I met the obstacle of the electric fence. The bottom strand of the two-strand barbed wire was about two feet from the ground. One morning when the dew was still on the grass, I ducked under it, only to stand up a bit too early. The shock to the top of my head knocked me instantly to the ground. Dazed and confused, I looked around to see who had the audacity to clobber me with a baseball bat. From that day on I was careful to the extreme, lying flat on the ground and rolling completely under the wire until I was at least four feet on the other side.
The electric fence surrounded the pasture, ending near the milk house. One day a regular customer of our raw milk stopped by with her daughter, age three, and made the following statement to my father: "I'd like to teach my daughter about electricity. Would it be okay if she touched your electric fence?"
Without missing a beat, my father (who never suffered fools gladly) replied, "Sure, she can touch it. But you touch it first."
Needless to say, the girl never touched the fence.
My father was a man of few words. That is, unless he had something important or funny to say. He could remember hundreds of jokes and stories, which he liked to tell and re-tell at family gatherings or the rare party. But when it came to speaking to me, he kept his comments short. I remember with pride the day he told me I could skin a rabbit better than he could.
Our farm was surrounded by suburbia, and the one thing that made Daddy madder than anything was neighbor kids (or "rugrats" as he called them) stealing his corn. Stealthily entering the cornfield, they would fill their sacks with as much corn as they could carry, presumably to throw at houses on Halloween or some such ritual.
Daddy sometimes took me along on field patrol, usually around dusk. One crisp fall evening, he stopped his pickup just outside the field of corn. Hearing the truck, a pair of boys took off running out of the field, one to the left, one to the right. Daddy grabbed his shotgun, loaded with rock salt, from the cab and shot it into the air. Then he cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled, "I got one of ya!"
Another time we pulled up to discover two bikes with handlebar baskets parked outside the field. I guess the thieves had decided it was easier to ride rather than walk home with their treasure.
Dad didn't say a word. He didn't grab his gun. He just got out of the truck and loaded the bikes into the bed. We drove home.
It took several days for the culprits to muster up the courage to slink over and ask for their bikes back. Daddy obliged, but only after making them muck stalls for an hour. One week my second grade class conducted a session of "Show and Tell." A freckle-faced boy stood in front of the transfixed class and told a wild tale of a mean old farmer who shot kids and stole their bikes. I sat there and thought, "Oh, my, I wonder who that mean old farmer is?" Then it hit me. I sank in my seat, praying no one knew I was the mean old farmer's daughter.
Sympathy was not one of my dad's strong points. One late summer day when he was working on a tractor in the machinery shed, I stood on tippy-toes on a board, reaching up to examine a fascinating gray lump in the corner of the eaves. The lump turned out to be a nest of wasps. Not happy to be disturbed, the swarm attacked. I fell off the board, screaming and rolling, into a giant mud puddle below. Daddy calmly walked over, picked me up by the scruff of my shirt, and said, "Get on home and get these muddy clothes off."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bed, Breakfast & Beyond"
Copyright © 2017 F.T. Richards Publishing.
Excerpted by permission of F.T. Richards Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. A Sure Thing?,
2. The Fixer-Uppa,
3. Laying the Foundation,
4. Giving It a Shot,
5. The School of Hard Knocks,
6. The Accident,
7. Clinching the Deal,
8. Illegal Tampering,
9. The Place Is Ours,
10. The Dastardly Mr. M.,
11. Ghosts of Fairwinds Past,
12. Lily: Plumber's Helper,
13. Surprise Help,
14. Chickens in the Henhouse,
15. Shaping Things Up,
16. Making a House a Home,
17. Disaster Averted,
18. The Wagners,
19. Raising the Ring,
20. The Schwartzes,
21. Christmas Deferred,
22. Market Times,
23. Horses Out!,
24. City Slickers,
25. Kvetch, Kvetch, Kvetch,
26. You Just Never Know,
27. Lovers and Other Strangers,
28. A Comedy of Errors,
29. Tornadoes and Emus and Peacocks, Oh My!,
31. Screech's New Home,
32. A Friend for Screech,
35. In My Absence,
36. Angel Unaware,
37. Good-bye, Screech and Chong,
38. The Intruder,
39. It's All Good,